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Various news outlets are reporting on a ruling by Army military judge Colonel Nance that the President’s comments about the Bergdahl case neither constitute unlawful command influence nor create the appearance of unlawful command influence.

For example, the Associated Press reports here that:

President Donald Trump’s scathing criticism of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl won’t prevent the soldier from receiving a fair sentence for endangering comrades by walking off his post in Afghanistan in 2009, a judge ruled Monday.

The judge, Army Col. Jeffery Nance, said the court has not been directly affected by Trump’s remarks, nor would the comments cause a reasonable member of the public to have doubts about the fairness of the military justice system. He had to consider both questions in deciding on whether actual or apparent unlawful command influence was interfering in the case.

“I am completely unaffected by any opinions President Trump may have about Sgt. Bergdahl,” the judge said. He added that prosecutors had convinced him that the Trump comments won’t put “an intolerable strain” on the public perception of military courts.

Bergdahl’s defense counsel sought dismissal of all charges (after Bergdahl pleaded guilty) because the President made a brief reference to the case during a press conference.

Thanks to our reader for the tip.

Having pleaded guilty last week without the benefit of a pretrial agreement, Sergeant Bergdahl was scheduled to be sentenced by a general court-martial composed of a military judge alone today. But the sentencing is continued until Wednesday as the military judge – Army Colonel Jeffrey Nance – considers a last-minute defense motion to dismiss. The Associated press reports here that:

The judge deciding Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s punishment said Monday he is concerned that President Donald Trump’s comments about the case could impact the public’s perception of the military justice system.

Sentencing was set to begin Monday for Bergdahl on charges that he endangered comrades by walking off his post in Afghanistan in 2009. But the judge, Army Col. Jeffery R. Nance, instead heard last-minute arguments by defense attorneys that recent comments by Trump are preventing a fair proceeding. Bergdahl faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Nance allowed the attorneys to question him about whether he was swayed by Trump’s comments. Nance said he wasn’t aware of the comments beyond what was in the legal motions. Nance said he plans to retire as a colonel in about a year and isn’t motivated by pleasing commanders to win a future promotion.

“I don’t have any doubt whatsoever that I can be fair and impartial in the sentencing in this matter,” Nance said.

The AP report also notes that “sentencing was set to resume Wednesday because a defense attorney wasn’t available Tuesday, the judge said.”

Colonel Nance’s confidence that he can be fair and impartial, the objective evidence supporting that conclusion (including his record and his impending retirement), Bergdahl’s guilty pleas, and the enormous publicity surrounding this case, provide plenty of reasons to reject the defense motion to dismiss that is based on the President’s recent brief reference to his prior comments in the case.

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THE WHITE HOUSE

Office of the Press Secretary

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

October 20, 2017

*Statement Regarding Military Justice*

**

Military justice is essential to good order and discipline, which is indispensable to maintaining our armed forces as the best in the world. Each military justice case must be resolved on its own facts. The President expects all military personnel who are involved in any way in the military justice process to exercise their independent professional judgment, consistent with applicable laws and regulations. There are no expected or required dispositions, outcomes, or sentences in any military justice case, other than those resulting from the individual facts and merits of a case and the application to the case of the fundamentals of due process of law by officials exercising their independent judgment.

###

Source.

Thanks to our reader for the tip.

Four years ago an Air Force lieutenant colonel who was the chief of the service’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response office was accused of sexual assault. The NBC story we referenced in this post isn’t on the web anymore, but here’s a report from another source about the accusation.

The sexual assault charges were eventually dropped, and other charges ended with an acquittal, but the meme economy made the case infamous (link is to YouTube video that’s still plenty relevant).

Today, Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post reports here (backup here) that:

The Army is grappling with a resurgence of cases in which troops responsible for preventing sexual assault have been accused of rape and related crimes, undercutting the Pentagon’s claims that it is making progress against sexual violence in the ranks.

In the most recent case, an Army prosecutor in charge of sexual assault investigations in the Southwest was charged by the military last month with putting a knife to the throat of a lawyer he had been dating and raping her on two occasions, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post.

Additionally, a soldier at Fort Sill, Okla., who was certified as a sexual-assault-prevention officer was convicted at a court-martial in May of five counts of raping a preteen girl.

Army officials confirmed to The Post that eight other soldiers and civilians trained to deter sex offenses or help victims have been investigated over the past year in connection with sexual assault. The Army would not provide details, saying that many of the investigations are pending.

A reader forwarded me this motion to dismiss filed yesterday by the defense in the Bergdahl case. The basis for the motion is a comment President Trump made about the case during a press conference on Monday:

At 1:47 p.m. on 16 October 2017, President Trump held a joint press conference in the Rose Garden with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. According to the official transcript, the following colloquy occurred between the President and a member of the press corps:

Q Mr. President, Ronica Cleary with Fox 5.

THE PRESIDENT: Yes.

Q Do you believe that your comments in any way affected Bowe Bergdahl’s ability to receive a fair trial? And can you respond to his attorney’s claims that —

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I can’t comment on Bowe Bergdahl because he’s — as you know, they’re — I guess he’s doing something today, as we know. And he’s also — they’re setting up sentencing, so I’m not going to comment on him. But I think people have heard my comments in the past.

(Emphasis added.)

Mot. at 2. The motion then argues that:

President Trump stands at the pinnacle of an unbroken chain of command that includes key participants in the remaining critical steps of the case. Among these are the Military Judge, the staff judge advocate, the general court-martial convening authority, and the judges of the Court of Criminal Appeals.

Mot. at 3.

Why this justifies “dismiss[ing] the charges and specifications,” Mot. at 1, after Bergdahl pleaded guilty, is anybody’s guess.

Presumably, however, Bergdahl’s defense team will voir dire the military judge prior to sentencing.

The motion also states:

The defense offers the transcript and a DVD of the colloquy reproduced above in support of the motion. We assume the government will not contest their authenticity and accuracy. If that is incorrect, we will ask that President Trump be called to testify telephonically.

Mot. at 3 (emphasis added). The prospect of calling the President to testify by telephone about a statement that was recorded, broadcast (watch it here), and witnessed by a great many people (any of whom could testify that it was said) is almost as ridiculous as dismissal would be.

Updated to add: I previously addressed the President’s comments about the Bergdahl case in this post, in which I wrote:

Dismissal is a remedy for unlawful command influence, but it’s the most extreme remedy and it means that Bergdahl could never receive a fair trial in the wake of Trump’s pre-election comments. Getting a fair trial may be harder than it would have been before the comments – or it could be easier if the court-martial members think the comments were inappropriate and hold them against the prosecution – but there’s no evidence that a fair trial is impossible.

In that post I also observed that:

There’s absolutely no evidence that the military judge (Colonel Jeffrey Nance) or the multiple appellate military judges who have considered this issue are the slightest bit afraid to correct injustice when they see it. Rather – as I noted here in the context of comments by Senator McCain that Bergdahl also tried to use to win a dismissal – the reaction of Simpsons character Monty Burns to the Germans seems closer to the true feelings of Army trial and appellate military judges in the face of any kind of improper influence.

As suspected here, and expected here, the Associated Press reports here that Sergeant Bergdahl pleaded guilty this morning.

Surprisingly, the guilty pleas (a dive) were entered without the benefit of a pretrial agreement (a naked plea). From the AP report:

FORT BRAGG, N.C. (AP) — Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, a Taliban captive for five years after abandoning his post in Afghanistan, pleaded guilty Monday to desertion and misbehavior-before-the-enemy charges that could put him in prison for life.

“I understand that leaving was against the law,” said Bergdahl, whose decision to walk off his remote post in Afghanistan in 2009 prompted intense search and recovery missions, during which some of his comrades were seriously wounded.

Bergdahl, 31, is accused of endangering his comrades by abandoning his post without authorization. He told a general after his release from five years in enemy hands that he did it with the intention of reaching other commanders and drawing attention to what he saw as problems with his unit.

The prosecution made no agreement to limit Bergdahl’s punishment in return for the soldier’s guilty pleas. The judge, Army Col. Judge Jeffery R. Nance, reminded Bergdahl that he could spend the rest of his life in prison, and asked him one last time if he wanted to plead guilty. “Yes,” Bergdahl replied, and the judge accepted the pleas.

(emphasis added).

Story here.

Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is expected to plead guilty soon to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy rather than face trial for leaving his Afghanistan post.

That’s according to two individuals with knowledge of the case.

They tell The Associated Press that Bergdahl will submit the plea later this month and sentencing will start Oct. 23. The individuals weren’t authorized to discuss the case and demanded anonymity.

Two months ago I noted that Bergdahl elected trial by a military judge alone, and I commented that the choice was a “preface to a guilty plea.”

Thanks to our reader for the tip.

In a lengthy story published in the Washington Post yesterday and available here, reporter Craig Whitlock writes about the way the Air Force handled sexual misconduct allegations made by a female civilian employee against her military supervisor, Colonel Ronald Jobo.

The story outlines cringe-worthy sexual harassment of the civilian employee by the Colonel, eventually leading to his receipt of nonjudicial punishment and transfer to the retired list at a reduced rank. It’s hard to gauge the appropriateness of this disposition without a comprehensive review of the facts and circumstances. But the story doesn’t offer that to the reader. Rather, it advances the tired narrative that the military is somehow incapable of addressing sexual misconduct within the ranks:

In their report, the investigators compiled extensive evidence that the colonel, Ronald S. Jobo, had committed abusive sexual contact against the woman, a civilian in her 30s. Under military law, the charge would have automatically resulted in a court-martial, a proceeding open to the public. The crime carried a sentence of up to seven years in prison and a requirement to register as a sex offender.

The decision on what to do next rested with a three-star general 600 miles away at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. In the military-justice system, commanders — not uniformed prosecutors — have the power to dictate how and whether criminal cases should be pursued.

In March 2016, Lt. Gen. John F. Thompson, the senior officer in Jobo’s chain of command, decided against charging Jobo with abusive sexual contact, or any crime at all. Instead, Thompson imposed what the military calls non­judicial punishment, or discipline for minor ­offenses.

Jobo was forced to retire and demoted one rank, to lieutenant colonel. Because the military keeps most disciplinary actions secret, the case was hidden from public view.

There would be no trial, no publicity and no public record — the same for thousands of other sexual assault investigations each year in the armed forces.

An examination of the Jobo investigation, based in part on an internal 400-page law enforcement case file obtained by The Washington Post, casts doubt on the military’s promises to crack down on sexual misconduct and hold commanders accountable for how they administer justice.

This reporting suffers from a few serious flaws.

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Here is a link to Army Times coverage of the Harvard Kennedy School disinviting Chelsea Manning from the list of 2018 Fellows after a severe case of public backlash. Here is the school’s statement, which talks about the “extent to which [a Fellow’s] conduct fulfills the values of public service to which we aspire.”

So Chelsea (former Bradley) Manning has a fellowship at Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics. Release here. Prompting the resignation of at least one other fellow, here. H/t JK

An Article 32 preliminary hearing was held over the weekend to consider allegations of rape of a child by retired Army Major General James J. Grazioplene. According to this associated press report:

The Washington Post obtained charging documents under the Freedom of Information Act that show Grazioplene is accused of committing rape on six occasions between 1983 and 1989 while stationed in the United States and Germany.

Earlier this year, in this post, I discussed the NMCCA’s opinion in United States v. Dinger, 76 M.J. 552, No. 201600108 (N.M. Ct. Crim. App. Mar. 28, 2017), in which a three-judge panel of that court affirmed that military retirement isn’t really retirement, it’s merely a change in duty status, and those who retire from active duty and receive retired pay remain subject to the UCMJ.

But the Grazioplene case raises a different issue: whether the prosecution is barred by the statute of limitations. Article 43 contains a broad, five-year statute of limitations, and the exception for child abuse offenses wasn’t added until 2003. In United States v. Lopez de Victoria, 66 M.J. 67, 74 (C.A.A.F. 2008), CAAF held that the change was prospective only:

Considering the lack of any indication of congressional intent to apply the 2003 amendment retrospectively to cases such as this, the general presumption against retrospective legislation in the absence of such an indication and the general presumption of liberal construction of criminal statutes of limitation in favor of repose, we decline to extend the reach of the 2003 amendment to Article 43, UCMJ, to cases which arose prior to the amendment of the statute.

Update / Correction: Except that in 1986 Congress amended Article 43 to eliminate any statute of limitations for “any offense punishable by death,” and rape was at the time a capital offense.

News reports about the Grazioplene case (including this military.com story and this Washington Post story) provide little additional detail about the facts of the case.

In 2009 then-Private First Class Bergdahl walked away from his combat outpost in Patika Province, Afghanistan. He was captured by the Taliban and held for nearly five years. He was recovered in a May 2014 trade for five Guantanamo Bay detainees that a report by the House Armed Services Committee found violated several laws. Ten months later, in March of 2015, now-Sergeant Bergdahl (who was promoted while in captivity as if he were a prisoner of war) was charged with desertion and misbehavior offenses, his case was referred for trial by general court-martial, and last week Bergdahl elected to be tried by a court-martial composed of a military judge alone.

As the case progressed some wondered why Bergdahl is being prosecuted after nearly five years of captivity in the hands of insurgents. The facts of his capture are relatively undisputed; in a moment of severe naivete (or maybe narcissism) Bergdahl walked away from his combat outpost and into the Afghan wilderness. The subsequent half-decade of maltreatment he suffered is undoubtedly a harsh price to pay for his terrible decision. Nevertheless – and despite the recommendation of the Article 32 preliminary hearing officer that Bergdahl face a lesser, special court-martial not authorized to adjudge a punitive discharge – Bergdahl will soon be tried by a general court-martial where he faces the possibility of a dishonorable discharge and confinement for as long as life without the possibility of parole.

Bergdahl’s decision to be tried by a military judge alone rather than a panel of members came after a year of litigation about comments made by President Trump during the campaign (as well as comments by others) that Bergdahl’s defense counsel claimed make it impossible for Bergdahl to receive a fair trial. A judge-alone trial likely waives that issue, and almost certainly cures it. It’s a surprising gift to the prosecution in a case with seemingly-overwhelming evidence, including that Bergdahl probably confessed to the desertion offense, and his post-recovery statements to film producer Mark Boal are probably a confession to the misbehavior offense as well.

One possible rationale for the decision to elect trial by a military judge alone is that a military judge will give Bergdahl credit for his time in captivity, at least by considering that time as a significant mitigating factor. This, of course, assumes that Bergdahl is guilty. But assuming that he is guilty of the desertion and misbehavior (or either) offenses that led to his capture, it’s not at all clear that his captivity mitigates his misconduct. Rather, I think there’s a stronger argument that Bergdahl’s captivity is a matter in aggravation.

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After so many motions, writ-petitions, and breathless claims that Army Sergeant Bergdahl can’t get a fair trial by court-martial on the charges of desertion with the intent to shirk important service and avoid hazardous duty in violation of Article 85(a)(2) and misbehavior before the enemy in violation of Article 99 for leaving his combat outpost in Patika Province, Afghanistan (leading to his capture by the Taliban and captivity for nearly five years), Bergdahl has elected to be tried by a court-martial composed of a military judge alone:
(source).

Here is Washington Post coverage (alternate link) of an $8.5 million jury award in a defamation case brought by retired Army Col. David Riggins against Susan Shannon who, in 2013, alleged that Riggins raped her in 1986 when they were both cadets at the United States Military Academy (West Point). The allegation was investigated by Army CID, and Riggins was subsequently removed from the promotion list for brigadier general.

After Shannon made her claim, Riggins told investigators that he had a consensual sexual relationship with her while at the Academy but he denied assaulting her:

The CID also contacted Riggins. A report in court records shows that Riggins described a consensual sexual encounter with Shannon after a Halloween party in 1983, and a short relationship with an amicable breakup. Riggins said he had no significant contact with her in 1986. In Washington state, Shannon told investigators there was no sex or relationship in 1983, only a rape after Riggins saw her staggering out of a pedestrian tunnel on campus in the spring of 1986. She claimed Riggins offered her a ride in his car, and that she had no memory of the actual assault, although she said Riggins “smugly admitted he did indeed rape” Shannon, according to a Fairfax court filing.

Riggins sued Shannon in Virginia, asserting:

that every aspect of her rape claim on the West Point campus was “provably false,” and that she wrote two blog posts and a Facebook post “to intentionally derail [his] promotion” to brigadier general. During a six-day trial that ended Aug. 1, a jury in Fairfax County, Va., heard from both Riggins and Shannon at length. And after 2½ hours of deliberation, they sided emphatically with Riggins, awarding him $8.4 million in damages, an extraordinary amount for a defamation case between two private citizens. The jury ordered Shannon to pay $3.4 million in compensatory damages for injury to his reputation and lost wages, and $5 million in punitive damages, “to make sure nothing like this will ever happen again,” according to one of the jurors.

A juror told the Post:

“Honestly,” said juror Marshall Reinsdorf, “we thought who was telling the truth was too obvious to be discussing. We held a vote, and everybody believed the colonel. The only argument was how big the damages were going to be.” Of the four women and three men on the jury, two other jurors declined to comment, two jurors did not return messages and two could not be reached.

Army Staff Sergeant (SSG) Robert Bales pleaded guilty at a general court-martial in 2013 to the murder of 16 Afghan civilians in 2012. The case had been referred capital, and his plea avoided the possibility of the death sentence. Bales received the maximum possible sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

In 2015, GQ magazine published this story about Bales based largely on post-conviction interviews of Bales that, according to the story, Bales hopes “will humanize him, and he hopes that one day in the hard-to-imagine future, as the wars fade from memory, someone will deem his sentence to be excessive, take mercy on him, and grant him a measure of clemency.”

The Army CCA will hear oral argument in Bales appeal tomorrow. Two issues are before the court:

I. [Whether Bales] is entitled to a new sentencing hearing because of the Government’s Brady violation, the Government’s fraud on the court-martial and the military judge’s exclusion of Mullah Baraan’s ties to IED evidence.

II. [Whether] the military judge erred by failing to hold a Kastigar hearing to determine the extent the military judge’s mistaken disclosure of Fifth Amendment protected information affected the sentencing hearing.

Both of these issues look to be wholly focused on Bales’ sentence, and neither appear to challenge his plea. The second issue probably involves the military judge’s erroneous disclosure of an unredacted copy of Bales’ R.C.M. 706 (sanity board) evaluation to the prosecution (noted here).

The first issue may also include a challenge to the safety of the widely-used anti-malaria drug mefloquine. According to this Seattle Times report published last week:

Defense attorneys are expected to argue that while on a 2003-2004 tour in Iraq, and possibly in Afghanistan in 2012, Bales took the antimalarial drug mefloquine, according to John Henry Browne, a Seattle attorney who has assisted in the soldier’s defense.

In July 2013, the FDA issued its strictest warning about mefloquine, noting the potential for long-term neurological damage and serious psychiatric side effects. The defense team did not raise Bales’ possible use of the drug during sentencing proceedings the next month.

Defense attorneys now hope the drug issue can persuade a three-judge panel to lessen his sentence.